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LCRA releases new plan to conserve water

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Thursday, February 18, 2016 by Jack Craver

Water is about to get more expensive for rice farmers in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

That message appears to be the gist of the Lower Colorado River Authority’s new Drought Contingency Plan, which emphasizes conservation in response to the 2011-2015 drought.

Because of low water supply, the agency has not provided “interruptible water” from either Lake Travis or Lake Buchanan – the region’s two reservoirs – to most farmers in its service area in the past four years. Interruptible water refers to water that is sold at lower rates, largely to agricultural or industrial customers, but can be withheld based on supply.

In anticipation of future droughts, the LCRA has reworked the way it will deal with its agricultural customers, even when water is plentiful.

“Since the 1950s, we have not seen the drought with the amount of tenure and severity that this one had,” explained John Hofmann, LCRA executive vice president of water, in an interview with the Austin Monitor.

As a result, the agency is changing its method of charging agricultural customers for water from both the Colorado River and the two water reservoirs, lakes Travis and Buchanan.

In the past, the way LCRA charged farmers for water was less dependent on the amount of water the farmer used in a year. While the amount of water was taken into account, a certain portion of the fee was based simply on the amount of land the farmer was having served.

Now the agency will be charging its agricultural customers solely based on the amount of water they consume. And, unlike in the past, it will not matter where it’s from.

“We charge you for water, whether it comes out of the river or the reservoir – it’s the same rate,” said Hofmann.

The rates are also going up, as the LCRA seeks to include the costs of constructing and maintaining its irrigation systems in its pricing. The agency will charge between $39 and $49.88 per acre-foot.

In a further attempt to encourage more efficient water use, the agency will also levy major surcharges on the heaviest users. The top tier of users will be subject to a 150 percent surcharge.

“There’s probably no stronger disincentive for waste than economics,” Hofmann explained in a brief presentation to the LCRA board Wednesday. Only one member of the board asked Hofmann follow-up questions after the presentation, and then members voted unanimously to adopt the new water plan rates.

In an attempt to more precisely assess how much water in the reservoirs is available for agriculture, the LCRA will make two assessments a year – in March and July – instead of one. In addition, its assessment will take into account both the current amount of water in the reservoirs as well as the “drought conditions,” including the inflows into the reservoirs. In the past, only the current levels were assessed.

“It did not have a lot of safeguards put in place for major droughts,” said Hofmann. “One of the lessons of droughts is you have to pay attention to both things.”

In a statement, LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson said the new approach would also ensure that the agency is able to protect its “firm supply” of water, referring to water municipalities pay for in order to guarantee access even in times of drought. The plan also “gives more certainty to everyone involved in the process,” he added.

This story has been corrected

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31801205

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